Minority Report references are old hat in the tech world. In fact, it's often a great way to describe technology that, as the cliche goes, "sounds like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel," yet is destined to remain a fiction. But this futuristic facial-recognition security system is the exception. It exists, and it's scary good.
The idea behind FST21's SafeRise In Motion Identification system is to make security as convenient as possible. The company speaks about "a world without keys, cards, or passwords," where the presence of a security guard is obsolete. All you have to do is be yourself. Or so says the company. Whether or not this type of system can make a world like that possible remains to be seen.
To use a couple buzzwords, SafeRise relies on a combination of facial recognition and biometric technology, and does it in real time. You simply walk up to the door that you want to open or the room you want to enter: the system will either recognize you as a trusted visitor and let you in, or it will identify you as an intruder and deny access. You shouldn't even have to break stride—unless you're an intruder, in which case you should leave.
The system, for the most part, is looking for faces. To get clearance, you just need a profile picture that the software can analyze for unique features—say, the number of pixels between your eyes. Then, whenever you're trying to get into a building or area, the SafeRise system kicks in. "We're trying to copy the way our mind works," the Israeli company's Arie Melamed Yekel told Gizmodo. "You look at the person. You look at his face, and you look at how he moves."
Those watching on a security camera will see that the software puts a yellow box over anything that registers as a face. If it recognizes that face, the box turns green and that person is cleared for entry. If not, it turns red, and the door stays locked. The system also uses additional biometric data like your gait and voice, so that as it learns more about you, it gets faster. "You don't have to stop; you don't have to slow down," Yekel told me. "You just continue and act as usual."
I recently met the guys from FST21 at a security conference in New York, and they showed me a demo. The headshot took approximately three seconds. When I stepped in front of the security camera, it took about two seconds for my yellow box to turn green. Even when I walked around, it still spotted me and recognized me as friendly.
Unsurprisingly, this sophisticated technology traces its roots back to military applications. FST21's founder, in fact, is none other than Major General Aharon Zeevi Farkash, the former head of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate. Farkash, who also spent time at Harvard Business School, left that post in 2006 and started FST21 soon thereafter.
The SafeRise system, in a way, is inspired by the relentless challenge of keeping checkpoints between Israel and Palestine secure. As security tightened up over the years, it created a bottleneck at the border that proved not only to be inconvenient but dangerous. Any police officer or border guard will tell you that crowds and security often do not mix.
"When he was the head of Israeli intelligence, [Farkash] saw that security starts to take over our life," Yekel says. "And when he left the army, he believed that his contribution was to keep security at a high rate but make sure that it doesn't change our lives [too much]." Yekel says that FST21 can do this "without compromising convenience yet have a high level of security."
Facial recognition is not a new thing, and it's getting better by the day. Just this week we learned that Facebook's facial recognition technology is "approaching human-level performance." In other words, a machine (powered by Facebook) will soon be able to identify you just as easily as a human (powered by brains). But that type of technology works with static images on a screen. Things get much more challenging when, instead, you're dealing people moving in real time.
FST21 says its big innovation is making facial recognition and other biometric data work seamlessly. It supposed to work like that scene in Minority Report, where Tom Cruise is walking around and all the advertising machines know who he is. Of course, those machines were scanning retinas, and this software scans faces and bodies.
Does that sound creepy to anybody else? Convenient, maybe, but do people really want their faces scanned whenever they walk into a building? Facebook caused a global outrage when it rolled out its own facial recognition features without getting user consent. If you walk into a building running FST21's software, you could have your face scanned without even knowing it. The system will also automatically save the biometric information about your face.
In fact, you might've already been scanned. FST21 wouldn't tell me about specific locations where this is being used, though they did mention that corporate offices were their big customers. Most of their business comes from Israel, Latin America, France, and the United States. The technology is definitely being used in New York City.
The company tries hard to give the technology a positive spin. "We believe that security should not harm, especially the good people," Yekel said, when we spoke on the phone earlier this week. "The ones that want to catch the bad people are not us." That said, a sales rep at the security conference suggested that Madison Square Garden could load the faces of the top 100 terrorism suspects into the SafeRise system and get an alert if any of them entered the building.
Regardless of how you feel about facial recognition technology—is it a big time saver or a total privacy violator or both?—it's here. Right now, military-grade technology is at work, watching who's going in and out of buildings around the world. It's also more easily accessible than ever. One of the most appealing things about the system is that it works with almost any existing security system. You just install the software and start spotting faces.
The challenge now is to figure out how to deal with the public's concerns. It's undeniable that some people are uncomfortable about having their faces scanned without warning. (I'm one of them!) FST21 does focus on small networks, gearing the software towards making it easier to get in and out of a particular office. The system, for now, is also not connected to the internet, so the likelihood that the system would get hacked is lower. And, again, they say they're focused on looking for bad guys.
But still: What if I simply don't want to get my face scanned? Well, don't go into a building that uses the face-scanning security software. Wait, what's that? You have no idea which buildings are scanning faces? Well, you probably need to take that up with your local lawmaker. One gentle suggestion in the meantime: a little warning sign would be nice.